As nuclear deals unravel, Germany must step up

Stand by for photos of modern-day leaders Putin and Trump shredding the treaty. Source: Imago/United Archives International

There are times when one would be delighted to have been wrong. Before the last election, I warned that the world and Europe, in particular, were about to enter into a new nuclear arms race.

It’s happening now with US President Donald Trump planning to withdraw from the INF treaty. INF stands for Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and the treaty agreed in 1987 bans the stationing in Europe of land-based nuclear missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers. And it’s already clear that the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (“Start”) for long-range missiles is also to be ended.

Both treaties made the world, and Europe in particular, safer. The threat of total nuclear annihilation was especially acute in Germany, which was the front line between the East and West. The threat of having new short-range nuclear missiles stationed in Germany made our country a potential battlefield in a nuclear war.

The treaties followed a nuclear arms race in Europe triggered by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact which led to the NATO Double-Track Decision consisting of an offer to enter into disarmament talks with the Soviet Union coupled with the threat to deploy more medium-range missiles in Europe if the Soviet Union refused to negotiate.

In Germany, Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt pushed for the NATO Double-Track Decision against the resistance of his party and the growing peace movement which could only see it as a threat of nuclear proliferation rather than an opportunity for disarmament. The dispute ended up costing Schmidt the chancellorship. His successor Helmut Kohl continued Schmidt’s policy in this regard. In the end, it was the feared “Cold Warrior” Ronald Reagan and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who successfully negotiated a disarmament treaty.

Backtracking on existing deals

And now we are about to witness these treaties being destroyed. The mistrust between the US and NATO on the one side and Russia on the other is so great that both sides are accusing each other of breaching the existing deals. NATO has sufficient evidence that Russia has developed new land-based medium-range missiles and wants to deploy them. Russia is pointing to NATO weapons systems that can launch nuclear missiles with the banned range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers.

Does this mean a new “double-track decision” is required to force Russia to the negotiating table? Unlike before, Mr. Trump is acting without any consultation with his NATO allies. He is showing once again how little the Western alliance means to him.

In any case, dividing and weakening Europe is the strategic goal of the ideological hardliners in and around the White House. The aim is “regime change” of our liberal democracy towards allegiance towards US authority. This section of America’s political scene would love to be able to shoo us Europeans around like rabbits.

Berlin would be well advised to address this issue as quickly as possible in Europe. European initiatives to resume reinforced arms controls would be the first step. Mutual arms control is an instrument for bad times when two sides don’t trust each other. In the current ice age in relations with Russia, none of it is really working. It would also be a first test of whether Russia is really prepared to cooperate and engage in disarmament. After all, Russia’s president shares Trump’s concern about the development of China’s nuclear potential given that China isn’t part of important nuclear disarmament treaties.

And of course, we need new initiatives on nuclear — and conventional — disarmament. No one has been talking about that for years. Instead, the European and international debate is dominated by calls for increased military spending. Where is the voice that wants to bring the seemingly utopian back to reality, the voice for disarmament and common security? Germany should be such a voice. Not naive about Russia, but not submissive to the US and the other hardliners in NATO either.

The author is a former SPD chairman, economics minister and foreign minister. To reach him:

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